Out on a long late October day hike up the Potrero Canyon Trail, wild Pete and I met only a troop of hardy Boy Scouts amid the aromatic chaparral.
We again attempted to scale the rounded height of the looming Hurricane Deck formation in the San Rafael Wilderness, after I’d failed in early October to reach the apex when pushing up the Lost Valley Trail (4.1.1. map).
Many of us understand what ancient cultures and anthropology studies have long known: Distinctive high places often compel human attention, and thus attract “pilgrimages” or Indigenous ceremonies and rites, as well as exciting songs, dances, poems, and even painted rock art.
In the last column, I celebrated 8,800-foot Mount Iwihinmu (Mount Pinos), which sits at a fulcrum point in the Chumash cosmology, and whose piñon tree pine-nuts were sacred and never to be collected.
Didn’t Moses go up to 7,500-foot Mount Sinai as recounted in Torah (Exodus 19ff) to bring down the Commandments that would govern the fleeing Jews? “And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount [Sinai] and be there: and I shall give thee tablets of stone, and a law … .” Mountaintops and caves are widely thought to be sacred “thresholds” or portals where spirits or gods choose to communicate with humans.
When I was in Jerusalem (way back) in 1980 visiting its three holy sites of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, I suddenly realized that two of them claimed to be on top of Mount Zion (aka Mt. Moriah). Specifically, these are the Wailing Wall (western wall of the Second Jewish Temple) and The Dome of the Rock (with Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount).
The Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre is just next door, on the slope of the sacrosanct mountain, whatever name you choose to call it (I am avoiding controversy here).
Archaeologists and historians of religion give special regard to these mountaintops that are usually (not always) difficult to reach on foot. They may or may not be city or village sites, and more often began in nature and wilderness areas. Think of Mount Olympus in Greece and Miunt Kailash in the Himalayas (sacred to Hindus and Buddhists).
These revered geo-locations on Gaia’s Body also don’t have to be a towering 22,000 feet like “Kailasa,” and might be low elevation but still prominent in their larger region. The notable Hurricane Deck formation is about 17 miles long and looms like a sandstone bar diagonally across the middle of the 220,000-acre San Rafael Wilderness on a north (east) by south (bit west) axis.
The Hurricane Deck’s rounded apex (the bar) tops out at only 4,200 feet, yet qualifies as a “short mountain range” because the Sisquoc and Manzana rivers divide it from the much higher Sierra Madre Range and the eponymous San Rafael Mountains on either flank. Most of the ’Deck levels at 3,500 or 3,000 feet.
Over the decades and during an academic career with three sabbaticals, I’ve luckily traveled to Israel, Greece and India, and made it a quest to physically hike to as many of these power-sites as possible (4.1.1. sites).
Only in the past few years have I had the sense to perceive that this highly distinctive sandstone bar western cartographers termed “The Hurricane Deck” with its low chaparral, lack of trees, crazed rocky formations, harsh conditions and complete lack of water (no springs) is indeed a sort of mysterious mountaintop, and almost certainly worshipped by local humans.
Why would it not be so?
Uluru is another large sacred stone monolith I hope to visit, and it has eerie resemblances to the Hurricane Deck although located in Australia. Once called Ayers Rock under the British Empire, Uluru comprises another massive sandstone monolith in the center of the mostly deserted Northern Territory’s “Red Center.”
Like the ‘Deck here, there may be a few sacred springs on the sides or the approaches to Uluru, but there are no springs atop either massif. Unlike the ‘Deck, which is accessible on a (very long) day hike, the extremely remote Uluru site’s nearest larger town is Alice Springs, 300 miles away.
After parking my truck right at the new concrete bridge (a mile before Nira at the end of the road), we stepped out into 47-degree weather, and noted nine other vehicles parked here. All of them must have been backpackers. (Car-campers would be a quarter-mile east in their tents at Nira Camp.)
We immediately began trekking west (downstream) and warmed up by cruising 1.5 miles to empty Potrero Canyon Camp on the Manzana. Peering about, I retightened my new boots, and we easily forded the flowing Manzana itself.
After 200 yards at the first potrero, we found the iron trail signs at this important trail junction. We didn’t continue along the creek right away, but turned dramatically inland (north) heading up the awesome Potrero Canyon Trail (29W12) — the iron sign states that this section leads to the apex in three tough miles where it junctions with the Hurricane Deck Trail (30W14).
I was well aware that this three miles ascending Potrero Canyon becomes more demanding and steeper as you approach the stone citadel, even as the beautiful chaparral crowds close to the little-used path.
Looking down and east, we could see how dry Potrero Canyon Creek has become and compared it to the parallel Lost Valley Creek of a month ago.
Although I eschew linear goals these days, our loose objective was to swoop down into the enchanting Negus Meadow, which I’ve visited several times, and we regard it as a sweet resting spot before pushing the final steep mile to the ‘Deck’s apex.
Cartographer Bryan Conant even has inscribed Negus Meadow on his excellent San Rafael map (4.1.1. map).
We trudged happily about two and one-quarter miles to reach the boundary of Negus Meadow, all the while praising ourselves for having started out so early that we still had mostly shade on the trail.
The views all around seized the soul as we saw Figueroa Mountain and other rocky silhouettes. However, the beautiful stone jumbles and littered boulders at the rim-boundary quite caught our fancy.
You can see the sloping Negus Meadow from the photo as wild Pete hiked beneath one of the wind-smashed giant oaks on our return.
Ringed by sentinel boulders, which in Indigenous narratives constitute the ancestors, these original beings now persist as recumbent figures in their unique sandstone forms.
Here we imagined ourselves on a spiritual threshold signifying a possible series of portals into other realms — perhaps ‘alapay (the Deck above us) or worse, portals leading down into a nether world of c’oyinashup with malevolent nunas
In springtime, this slanting meadow dons a glorious verdant green, and there are a few intermittent streams. The array of oak trees speckling the meadow would supply aspirants and visitors with ample acorns for a time, and there were masses of now expiring holly leaf cherries.
After a very pleasant lunch and copious drafts of water, we felt the rising heat and chose to return down to the Manzana and back to our vehicle. This 6.5 miles is mostly out in the open, and we needed five hours to complete the pilgrimage.
The Chumash believed the entire area was redolent with spirit life and the influence of the ancestors, so I felt no overwhelming need to “make it to the top” like I would have experienced in my own Boy Scout days.
I admired the seven Scouts from Camarillo who had backpacked to Manzana Schoolhouse on the Manzana Creek Trail and back in just two days — perhaps the time will come when they, too, make it to the Negus Meadow lined by the stone forms of our predecessors.
Best map is Bryan Conant’s “San Rafael Wilderness Guide and Trail Map” (2015; available at Chaucer’s Books).
Apex sites: Dome of the Rock, Wailing Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; Mount Haifa; Baja California (San Borja Mission); Mount Baldy; Iwihinmu; Dodona; Mount Lassen; Mount Langley (14,000 feet); Mount Tabor; and many more. The point is that there seems to be a near-infinite number of these sacred high points.